THE CHRISTIAN: BE “PERFECT,” OR “COMPASSIONATE”??
Matthew’s gospel reads “…be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The original Greek word was found in a hypothetical document called the Quellen(German for sources). Most Scriptural experts accept the hypothesis that the Quellen represents the earliest available tradition of Jesus’ own words.
It is necessary to contextualize material written over 2000 years ago. Matthew was writing for a nascent Christian community of Jews in the ancient city of Antioch around 40 years after the death of Jesus. He was passing on to them his view of what identified a Christian among the Antioch Jews. Matthew’s gospel, the first to use the terms Christian and ecclesia, the Greek word for Church, clearly framed an authoritarian model for the Christian community as it existed in Antioch: the complete authority of Peter, the rock, key role of law, and a stringent moral code for Jesus’ WAY. Antioch represented one city, although an important one, and referred to only one apostle as the ultimate authority amongst Jesus’ followers.
About 10 years later Luke’s gospel directed to Gentiles more than the Jews translated the same Greek expression of the Quellen as “compassionate” thus emphasizing Jesus’ predilection for the poor and marginalized in his Father’s Kingdom. Luke appeared to be writing for the followers of Jesus at large. It was one of various Christian communities that were surfacing throughout the Roman Empire and not the one that would later become the exclusive framework of the institutional model for a new Church (ecclesia) to prevail up to our own day. It appears that Luke (and the Evangelist Mark) were intent on capturing and spreading the heart of the good news and not a time bound structure.
Why is it worthwhile to focus on apparently trivial verbal differences in the Scriptures? Does Jesus’ UNKNOWN CREATOR/FATHER/MOTHER experience compassion? Can there be serious differences or only nuances in the message that Jesus died defending? All that can be said is that GOD created in man a capacity for compassion and that Jesus was a model of that quality up to his death on the cross. It is important for every stage of human history to get Jesus’s message right.
In the spiritual life of a modern Christian of the Judeo/Christian culture there is a great deal of difference between striving for perfection, an attribute unique to God, and compassion which joining “com” and “passion” means entering into the another human’s anguish in order to feel for and help another person(s). As a well-known saying of our native-Americans goes, you cannot feel the pain of another until you have worn his moccasins.
For centuries the instruments to discover these linguistic subtleties in the gospels were not readily available to those interested in knowing and living the moral compass for a follower of Jesus. Modern scholarship on the other hand, in the context of the scientific reality of evolution has been able to turn an apparent triviality into a global value. Continuing the momentum initiated by Matthew’s gospel the emphasis during centuries was more on a personal moral perfection, the Greek/Roman virtues, as lived in Christianity through historical stages: martyrdom, flight into the desert, monastic life, heroism in the practice of “Christian” virtues as reflected in the Catholic Church(CC) as vetted by the Vatican Curia. Compare this “preeminence” of heroic virtue as a sign of perfection or holiness of the saints by the (CC), that is, the Roman or Vatican superstructure, to simply finding and loving God in all things and showing compassion toward others according to one’s calling.
There should be no disrespect for the traditions and legacy of the Christian Churches which have preserved Jesus and his message for over 2000 years. Religion in most instances has exercised a strong influence on a given model for spiritual discipleship to Jesus instead of being limited to a being simply a preferred public allegiance. On the other hand historically frequent tensions have arisen between the official canons of holiness products emanating from the very human political/religious superstructure in place and God’s individual calls to holiness based on compassion in service to others.
It does appear however that God in history is relegating the CC’s exclusive infallibility and supreme power over the spiritual lives of its members, a claim to the pinnacle of human privilege in our Judeo/Christian culture, to the level of other fallible human institutions. For without its political (secular) partnership religion as represented by the CC and other Christian denominations as well no longer find audiences to respond to their claim to speak for the divine.
Instead all religions have the obligation to turn to the human family created by God throughout a tumultuous history to interpret Jesus’ spiritual message for those seeking God. As Pope Francis has stated and is leading the CC in his apostolate and reform:
“Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.” (A BIG HEART OPEN TO GOD: A CONVERSATION WITH POPE FRANCIS America Press. Kindle Edition. 2013-12-15, Locations 291-292). For a link to the quotations: https://www.thirdgencatholic.com/?p=898.
A COLLECTIVE MORAL COMPASS
Moral Compass means having values that guide your life journey for you yourself and others. Another meaning included in Webster’s New World Dictionary is “to grasp mentally; understand; comprehend.” You need to understand, grasp mentally and spiritually your responsibility for choices. Collective takes your life’s responsibility up the social ladder, usually beginning within a family, widening your associations with friends, community, state/nation, to conclude where your contribution ends in our contemporary global village, that is the entire planet earth inhabited by the human family.
Should voting then and political activism when possible be considered a moral responsible action? The saying that “all politics is local” coined by the legendary U S Senator Tip O’Neill, referred to the benefits that a nation-wide federal law could have on a small locality. Last year’s national presidential election is demonstrating clearly that the phrase encompasses a two-way street. As responsibility for national and international political decisions descends the social and institutional ladder to impact individual lives, our own and others, a corresponding personal responsibility for whom and what we vote for goes up the ladder and can impact others with serious consequences at different levels of society (including religion), even across our globe. Adhering to a moral compass means “to grasp mentally; understand; comprehend;” the tradeoffs between personal values and/or benefits/harm up the social ladder. It means accepting personal responsibility for consequential repercussions as far as they reach.
It was not difficult in our most recent political contest, and continues so today, to discern the stakes involved in a vote that promised a divisive polarization. To mention only a couple: the environmental question: minor costs for the richest few on earth vs. immeasurable personal and economic costs to some of our own more vulnerable citizens as well as to most of the rest of the planet’s peoples; another, even the mention of a threat of a nuclear holocaust begs description in its impact on the human family, yet that was a possibility offered for a vote. Many political decisions made at home in today’s global village need to be morally weighed for their collective impact.
The following are just a few links that demonstrate how your vote can seriously impact lives at various levels and even unknown places. Weigh your responsibility in the light of the possible consequences.